Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common disorders of childhood, affecting almost six million American youngsters between the ages of 3 and 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institutes of Mental Health notes that ADHD symptoms include difficulty paying attention and excessive movements, such as kids squirming around in their seats at school.
It’s easy to assume that fidgeting associated with hyperactivity is related to inattentiveness. However, there’s surprising news suggesting moving around might be beneficial to kids with ADHD — and even increase their ability to focus in class.
University of California (UC) Davis MIND Institute researchers found the extra movement associated with ADHD helps hyperactive kids think better.
The UC Davis research team studied a group of pre-teens and teenagers diagnosed with ADHD to see if the youngsters’ frequent movements had an impact on tests designed to measure attention. Other kids the same age but who didn’t have ADHD were also tested.
To document how much the research volunteers moved and fidgeted, all the study participants wore devices on their ankles that measured physical activity while the youngsters completed a "flanker test," which involved concentrating on one arrow on a screen while ignoring other arrows.
Each child taking the test was told to focus on the arrow in the middle of other arrows flanking the target and to decide in what direction the central arrow was pointing. In multiple trials, the arrows changed directions and, in order to score correctly, attention had to be focused on the one central arrow while ignoring the others.
The results show that youngsters with ADHD who were actively moving around — squirming in their seats — performed significantly better on the flanker tests than youngsters who sat still. In fact, the research subjects who moved the most intensely performed best of all and were more likely to correctly note the middle arrow’s direction.
"This finding suggests that accuracy in ADHD may be enhanced by more intense activity or that when a child with ADHD is using more cognitive resources they are more likely to be engaging in physical activity," the study concluded.
"It turns out that physical movement during cognitive tasks may be a good thing for them," said lead researcher Julie Schweitzer, PhD, professor of psychiatry and director of the UC Davis ADHD Program. "It may be that the hyperactivity we see in ADHD may actually be beneficial at times. Perhaps the movement increases their arousal level, which leads to better attention."
While the frequent movement of hyperactive youngsters is often thought of as a symptom that needs to be controlled in order to help those with ADHD concentrate, it may be time to reconsider that idea, according to the researchers.
"Maybe teachers shouldn't punish kids for movement and should allow them to fidget as long as it doesn't disturb the rest of the class," said Arthur Hartanto, a study coordinator with the UC Davis ADHD Program and the study's lead author. "Instead, they should seek activities that are not disruptive that allow their students with ADHD to use movement, because it assists them with thinking."
Michigan State University (MSU) and University of Vermont researchers found that youngsters who have ADHD or are at risk for the disorder benefit from being physically active before their school day starts, too.
Performing daily aerobic exercise in the morning boosted attentiveness in the classroom, according to the study. The children were less moody and more likely to get along with classmates, as well.
“Despite the number of remaining questions, physical activity appears to be a promising intervention method for ADHD with well-known benefits to health overall,” said researcher Alan Smith, chairperson of MSU’s Department of Kinesiology. “This gives schools one more good reason to incorporate physical activity into the school day.”
September 28, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN